Shorten the consensus leader unites a fractured Labor, but it may not quite be enough

Team-oriented and unpretentious, Bill Shorten has stabilised the Labor Party after the divisiveness of Kevin Rudd’s leadership. AAP/Mick Tsikas

In this first of two major essays on the men who could become prime minister on Saturday night, Paul Strangio examines Bill Shorten’s leadership and campaign. Tomorrow, Michelle Grattan analyses Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership and his claims to retain the top job.


Campaigning for the Labor leadership against Anthony Albanese in 2013, Bill Shorten vowed that, if successful:

You will hear less about ‘I’ and more about ‘we’. The era of the messiah is over.

Shorten prevailed and, looking back over his nearly three years as opposition leader, including this election campaign, it is reasonable to conclude that he has fulfilled that pledge of leadership modesty.

Shorten has steered the party to traditional Labor policy ground, been team-oriented and unpretentious in performance. To put it another way, he has nestled into the bosom of the party following the familial traumas catalysed by the reign of the imperious Kevin Rudd.

Leadership and the Labor Party have always been uncomfortable bedfellows. This is largely because of the inherent tension between Labor’s collectivist organisational ethos and the impulse of leaders to bend the party to their will.

Throughout Labor’s history there has been a spectrum of leaders ranging from those who have worked with the grain of the party’s power-sharing principles (group leaders) and those who have chafed against them (personalisers). Outliers of the latter category include first world war prime minister Billy Hughes and, more recently, Rudd. Brilliant and creative spirits, but wilful and controlling, they have had a convulsive effect on the party.

In turn, the party’s response to being burnt by excessive personalising leadership has been to retreat into a period of closing ranks and recuperation under a group leader. Enter Shorten.

In happier times: Bill Shorten with Kevin Rudd, two very different leaders. AAP/Alan Porritt

Shorten has given most expansive expression to his leadership philosophy in his book, For the Common Good, published earlier this year. In a marker of generational change, he notes that his political coming of age coincided not with the Whitlam government’s dismissal but with Bob Hawke’s 1983 election to office.

If it has become a cliché for contemporary Laborites to genuflect to Hawke as an exemplar of prime-ministerial leadership, in Shorten’s case it has a ring of authenticity given their shared history as trade union officials.

Far from disowning that background, Shorten credits his experience as state and then national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union as fundamental to shaping his leadership practice. As a union boss he perfected what he describes as:

… the 90:10 rule – let’s work on the 90% we agree on, not the 10% we differ.

It is a rekindling of Hawke’s consensus principle – a faith in the power of persuasion to resolve differences through reasoned argument, goodwill and give-and-take.

Consensus politics can correlate with shallowness of belief and doubtless Shorten’s detractors would regard it as evidence of their view of him as an archetypal wheeler and dealer. Yet, in For the Common Good, Shorten intimates an understanding of distributive leadership and an appreciation that power sharing is essential to addressing thorny public policy dilemmas.

In my decision-making, I have always consulted with the widest array of people and will continue to do so as prime minister … My belief is that effective leadership does not mean accumulating power. On the contrary it has been my experience that devolving power had the potential to provide superior process and policy.

And further:

Any government I lead will operate in a collegial, consultative manner where cabinet decision-making processes and caucus debate are taken seriously. To me decentralising power is more than a noble ambition or slogan. It is a style of leadership that works.

Shorten is hardly alone among recent aspirants for national office in making reassuring noises that as prime minister he would abide by a proper cabinet process, respect colleagues’ opinions and resist “captain’s calls” and other unilateral leadership breakouts.

By comparison, however, with the Olympian Malcolm Turnbull, who one feels might surrender at any moment to an urge to direct the entire production himself, there is something about Shorten’s public persona that provides confidence he would be a team player as prime minister. His off-key declamations – some famously lampooned as “zingers” by comedian Shaun Micallef – ill-fitting suits and general freedom from bombast evoke an oddly reassuring ordinariness.

Bill’s famous zingers.

In a profile written early in the campaign, The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy observed that Shorten retains “a strangely boyish quality, a kind of foot-shuffling awkwardness”. Drawing inspiration from one of Shorten’s colleagues, Murphy identified a “winsome” aspect to him, “a certain lightness of touch, a certain ‘aww shucks’ shtick”.

That Shorten has succeeded in binding Labor’s wounds from the Rudd-Gillard era attests to his capacities for self-effacement and conciliation. On the other hand, a lack of flamboyance and a lingering reputation as a backroom fixer are reasons he has never fired the public imagination.

By most accounts empathetic and disarming in small settings, Shorten has been less sure in finding his emotional range with the wider electorate. Public regard for him has been grudging and seems destined to be only incrementally won. Witness the slow thawing of attitude to him this year.

As with other first-term opposition leaders, fighting an election has afforded Shorten a degree of traction in the community he had not previously enjoyed. But the improved ratings have perhaps also betrayed a sneaking admiration of Shorten’s resilience. This was most evident during the early, miracle days of Turnbull’s ascension, when Labor’s position seemed utterly hopeless.

Possibly Shorten has won credit as well for taking a stand on previously untouchable regressive tax subsidies such as negative gearing. Maybe the electorate has also gradually come to appreciate that he has never stooped to the aggressive incivility that characterised Abbott’s tenure as opposition leader.

When campaigning for Labor’s leadership in 2013, Shorten declared:

If I was to be prime minister, I would like to be known as the prime minister for the powerless, for the disempowered, the people who don’t have a voice in our society.

Labor’s policy positioning has been a second element of a turning back to party under his stewardship. In his recent Quarterly Essay, George Megalogenis pinpointed a reality for which there have been portents for a decade-and-a-half and which has grown stark since the global financial crisis. That is, the market liberalisation orthodoxy, largely ascendant since the 1980s, is exhausting its economic and political utility.

What is required in its place, Megalogenis proposes, is a refreshed policy project involving a realignment of the boundary between government and market. This entails the former assuming greater responsibility to address growing inequality, relieving choked metropolises and meeting other pressing challenges to which markets alone can provide little solution.

Once our political elite recognise this, Megalogenis writes:

They can release themselves from the spell cast by the leader they wish to be, Paul Keating.

Globally, the decay of the neoliberal consensus is having volatile political consequences. But, domestically, the logic of Megalogenis’ analysis is that by demanding an interventionist state, the policy cycle is gravitating in a direction compatible with Labor traditions.

After all, the Hawke-Keating embrace of markets in the 1980s required defiance of Labor’s genealogy. Despite paying homage to Hawke’s leadership in For the Common Good, Shorten warns against the reflexive policy nostalgia for that era promoted by those who police the idea that reform must be synonymous with further market liberalisation. He observes:

There is no way for modern Labor to simply update and reintroduce the changes implemented by the Hawke/Keating era … Modern Labor seeks government in a different world.

At the official Labor Party launch, Shorten paid homage to one of his political idols, Bob Hawke. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Inflaming The Australian, whose correspondents have variously charged him with fiscal quackery, inciting class envy and of even being a throwback to antediluvian Arthur Calwell-era populism, Shorten has declared that “inequality is back on the national agenda”.

He has asserted that economic progress should be indivisible from increased fairness, brandished plans for major public investment in health, education and infrastructure, railed against corporate tax cuts, and argued for redistributive reforms in superannuation, capital gains and negative gearing.

As Paul Kelly has noted, this represents a pronounced departure from the economic conservatism preached by Rudd during Labor’s winning 2007 election campaign.

Whether that shift is more rhetorical than substantial and whether Shorten’s formula amounts to a credible response to the tangled cross currents of contemporary Australia are debatable. But the premise that investment in education and health is fundamental to economic productivity and social equity has compelling force. What is unmistakable, moreover, is that Shorten has campaigned on a program of unashamed Labor pedigree.

The legacy of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars has supplied another imperative for Shorten’s situating of Labor. When he won the leadership in October 2013, it was under new rules for electing and deselecting leaders that for the first time granted rank-and-file members a role in the process.

A reform taken with resurrected Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd holding a gun to the party room’s head, those rules provide for an even 50% weighting of caucus and party member votes. These rules delivered Shorten a narrow victory over Anthony Albanese. Shorten won nearly two-thirds of caucus support but only 40% of the rank-and-file vote.

Membership participation in leadership ballots has the potential to pull a parliamentary party from the ideological middle ground towards the adventurism of rank-and-file activists. The unlikely triumph of radical-leaning Jeremy Corbyn in British Labour’s 2015 leadership contest powerfully demonstrated this phenomenon. Australian Labor’s model of equally weighting caucus and rank-and-file votes and more restrictive rules for enrolling new members guards against the kind of left mobilisation responsible for Corbyn’s victory.

Even so, Shorten has surely been conscious that, with the odds stacked against him winning government at his first attempt, retaining the leadership after an election defeat (under Labor’s rules the position is automatically thrown open after a loss) would rely on him improving, or at least not alienating, rank-and-file support. This is a vagary of Labor’s new leadership selection system.

Designed to give leaders security against parliamentary room insurgencies, the rules also impose a modicum of restraint on them becoming too autonomous of the party’s grassroots. It will be intriguing to see how Labor’s membership evaluates Shorten’s leadership performance in a post-election ballot.

The likelihood is that Labor will fall short on Saturday. Winning 21 seats from a first-term government is probably a mountain too great to climb. Nor will it be surprising, given the direction in which Shorten has taken Labor, to find a significant part of any swing back to the party concentrated in its safe seats. While unproductive electorally, such an outcome will at least represent a modest restoring of faith following the disillusionments of 2007-13.

At the time of writing, it also seems probable that Shorten will have performed convincingly enough for partyroom colleagues and Labor’s rank-and-file members to renew his leadership. He will understand, however, that this guarantees little. Bill Hayden and Kim Beazley are two recent historical examples of party leaders who delivered first-up honourable losses, but never grasped the prime ministership.

To be sure, Shorten will face an important choice in a second term of opposition. Early in this essay, I proposed that it is possible to categorise Labor leaders along a spectrum from group-oriented to personalisers.

While the former may not have the combustive risk of personalisers, neither are they free of potential downsides. The danger is of them growing too compliant and failing to drive their party forward. They end up presiding over drift.

Labor’s finest leaders have lined up somewhere between the group and personalising poles: skilful at harnessing the talents of parliamentary colleagues and tending to the relationship with the wider organisation (and public), but also prepared, where necessary, to cajole and impose their will upon the party.

This suggests that what has served Shorten well over the past three years may not suffice beyond this campaign. The result itself is likely to emphasise the limited electoral utility of hugging a dwindling party base.

Labor needs to combine clarity of philosophical purpose with imaginative means to forge new coalitions of support in a fragmenting and fractious society. This includes constructively coming to terms with the dilemma of the flight of a section of the left-of-centre constituency to the Greens.

In other words, we will soon see if Shorten has the wherewithal to transition from tribal healing to a more creative and expansive project.

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